Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Racism is alive and well in Canada


The recent staging of blackface at an institution of higher learning in Montreal is disturbing, to say the least. But it can serve as a potent reminder of the ongoing legacies of racism and racist cultural practices against blacks in the west - and yes, this includes Canada.
As a professor of (among other things) Canadian art history, I can state unequivocally that there is a profound deficit of knowledge of Canada's racist past among university-aged students in Canada. When I introduce topics such as the vast visual culture of transatlantic slavery to my mainly white Canadian students, the majority initially approach the materials exclusively from a perspective of American and Caribbean slavery. It is always a moment of shock when they learn that Canadians (French and British) for centuries also enslaved peoples of African and native descent.
How has the 28-year period (1833-61) of the Underground Railroad (which remembers Canada as the saviour of African-American slaves fleeing northward to freedom) taken on such mythic status in our national consciousness, while the centurieslong history of slaving in the "Great White North" has been almost universally forgotten? The answer, though complex, can be summarized as follows: Canadians have a knack at off-loading their colonial history of racial marginalization and exploitation onto their southern cousins, the United States.
The events at the school of Hautes Études Commerciales should alert us to the fact racism is alive and well in Canada.
In one fell swoop, this student performance maligned various groups on the basis of race, nationality, religion, language and culture. The students not only vilified and marginalized black people in general by "blacking up," but also took underhanded swipes at the entire nation of Jamaica (carrying the flag and wearing the national colours), while criminalizing blacks as pot-smokers (chanting "smoke more weed"), ridiculing Jamaican patois (chanting "Yeah mon"), equating the use of marijuana in the religious, spiritual and meditative practices of Rastafari with getting high and partying for the hell of it, and finally, some even wearing hats with fake locks attached (a problematic appropriation of a black hair aesthetic).
It is hard to believe the students' and university's initial explanation that the group's dress and behaviour were meant to honour the Jamaican Olympian Usain Bolt. Could they not have honoured Bolt dressed as themselves, white students? And if Bolt had been on campus that day, would they really have greeted him dressed in this manner?
Although minstrelsy and its related practices, such as blackface, are most often associated with the United States, this once widely accepted form of popular culture did exist in Canada (as well as in Europe and other locations). A part of the problem is that the histories of minstrelsy in Canada have yet to be written.
Dating to the early 19th century, minstrelsy involved a public theatrical performance that included racist humour, singing and dancing. The mainly white male performers (often of marginalized or so-called "undesirable" white groups, such as Jewish and Irish men) often performed in blackface, applying dark black face paint and deep red lipstick. In this guise, the whites of their eyes were dramatically apparent.
Minstrelsy celebrated a white nostalgia for black enslavement. It is no accident that it reached its peak only after slavery had been abolished. The songs, dancing and "comedy" of the performances hinged on a recitation of the assumed inferiority of blacks and often-violent fantasies of the murder, torture and dismemberment of black bodies. Of course, this all helped to bolster ideas of white supremacy.
Whether or not the group of HEC students knew explicit details of the history of minstrelsy, it is difficult to imagine that they did not know that "blacking up" in 2011 could be construed as inappropriate and racist behaviour. Students are voracious consumers of popular culture (television, internet, print media, etc.). A quick glance at any of these media would tell you that images of blackface have been all but banned from the public domain. The old Hollywood movies where white movie stars donned blackface are almost never screened, and neither are the older versions of cartoons like Bugs Bunny and Tom and Jerry that used blackface.
The HEC students and a university spokesperson said that their actions should not be construed as racist, due to a lack of knowledge. But one could argue that not knowing that this type of spectacle is wrong is a perfect example of racism. Surely racism is not only a matter of intent. If our measure of racism is based solely on what people meant to do, we ignore the impact of the racist acts upon its victims.
The negative message that this performance sends to the black population of the university should not be underestimated. The white students who chose to don blackface eventually went back to classes and sat down beside their black fellow students, listened to lectures delivered by their black professors (although there are very few), checked out library books handed to them by black library staff, and ate meals in campus cafeterias served by black staff. Their disregard for the impact of their performance on the well-being of the black members of their shared university community is telling. It speaks of racial narcissism.
Lest we dismiss what happened at HEC as an isolated incident, we should remember the debacle that took place during Halloween at a Legion Hall in the town of Campbellford, Ont., last year. Unbelievably, the first prize was awarded to a pair of white men, one of whom wore a Ku Klux Klan costume with a confederate flag draped on his back and the other in blackface with a noose around his neck. The direct references to the American Civil War and the heinous practice of lynching made this spectacle particularly vile.
Back to university campuses: here and in the U.S., there is a rising trend of "gangsta" "hip-hop" or "ghetto" parties at which white students congregate in blackface, "tricked out" with "bling," even going so far as to pad their backsides in a disturbing parody of black anatomy. This resurgence of minstrelsy seeks to degrade blacks. Clearly black students are not welcome at such parties unless they consent to being the punchline of a racist joke.
It is unsettling that a popular cultural form that supposedly died in the mid-20th century is making such a strong comeback. It is fitting that we ask why, and why now. Is this not the age of Obama (the first black president of the U.S.), of Michaëlle Jean (Canada's first black governorgeneral), of Yolande James (Quebec's first black female MNA), of the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Canadian businessman and philanthropist Michael Lee-Chin?
I see the resurgence of blackface and minstrelsy as a racist pushback against precisely these types of gains and accomplishments. There is a specific type of racism reserved for high-achieving blacks. Middle-and upperclass blacks - people with education, credentials, good careers, and money - often encounter what I like to call "how dare you?" racism: "How dare you be more educated than me?" "How dare you make more money than me?" "How dare you assume a position of power and leadership over me?"
It should perhaps be even more upsetting to us that blackface is making a comeback among young, educated whites. What does it mean that university-and collegeeducated young adults are engaging in these acts? Well, for one thing, we need to rethink the simplistic idea that racism is more abundant among older populations and non-existent among our youth. Furthermore, we need to ask if "education" is a cure for racism. Clearly education in general is not. In fact, the type of Eurocentric education that proliferates in the curriculum, methodologies, theories, course materials and resources of the majority of university disciplines is precisely what perpetuates the racist ignorance and racist behaviour of students like those at HEC.
Canadian universities' diversity policies, many of which are strategically unenforceable and unenforced, also contribute to the racial exclusion of blacks, people of colour and natives on university campuses, especially as faculty and upper administration. The policies help to propagate the idea of Canada as a race-blind, multicultural state, one that does not really need to engage with the issue of racism, since racism is supposedly not a problem in Canada.
As disturbing as it is, the HEC incident can act as a wake-up call to Canadians and a starting point for a broader public discussion. The university's initial reaction was inept, an attempt to downplay the incident as innocent fun; it was a shining example of how racism is typically "managed" in Canada. International media attention rendered that early response untenable. The question is, what will the university do now? Should the students involved be expelled? Lose a semester of study? Be forced to make a formal apology? Be made to do community service at one of the many black cultural institutions in Montreal, so they could spend time with and get to know some of the blacks and Jamaicans whom they ridiculed that day?
And what about the university's diversity polices and procedures? Why weren't there checks and balances in place to ensure the blackface idea never made it to the level of a public performance?
While I am disturbed by the fact that this blackface performance took place, I am pleased at the critical international media attention that it has spawned. In Canada, this is a long-overdue and worthwhile conversation.

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